How Ego and Rivalry Fueled the Renaissance

Broken egos and Renaissance diss tracks...

We often say that today’s artists have huge egos. And for the most part, it’s true. As modern day art revolves around not art itself but the artists themselves, it’s easy for those artists to become self-absorbed. 

This cult of the artist impacts how art is received. For example, if you or I were to take a dead cow and frame it in a vat of formaldehyde, most people would call us serial-killers in the making. But when Damien Hirst does it, he wins awards, cash prizes, and gets his “art” displayed in museums. 

Many people trace the origins of this “cult of the artist” back to the Renaissance. And in some ways, they’re not wrong — it generally is the period in which artists began to sign their works and focus on developing their own unique styles.

But this doesn’t tell the full story. While Renaissance artists did focus on their own unique art, their actions were drastically influenced by their worldview. As historian Paul Strathern puts it:

“The most characteristic and original expression of the Renaissance would be its art, yet crucially its artists saw this activity as a form of learning.”

In other words, Renaissance artists saw themselves not simply as traffickers in art, but in knowledge. Their unique advances in the realm of art were considered contributions to the Great Conversation and the expansion of knowledge — not mere exercises in artistic vanity.

You only need to see da Vinci’s notebooks to appreciate his lifelong obsession with learning…

That said, the Florentines in particular were a feisty bunch, and they did at times have their moments of egotism, anger, and hostilities with other artists.

Today, we explore two of the most memorable rivalries of Renaissance Florence…

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Brunelleschi & Ghiberti

Filippo Brunelleschi (left) and Lorenzo Ghiberti (right)

In 1401, the city of Florence needed new bronze doors for the city baptistery. A committee was formed to select the artist, and dozens of incredible applications were received and reviewed.

After much deliberation, the man the committee finally chose was Lorenzo Ghiberti, an unknown twenty-four year old goldsmith. The decision was controversial at the time — much bigger names had been passed over, and it was also thought Ghiberti was an illegitimate, bastard child (a fact which didn’t disqualify him, but was a major complaint of his detractors!)

One artist in particular was especially infuriated by the decision: the competition runner-up, Filippo Brunelleschi. Known as a secretive man with a volatile temper, Brunelleschi was quick to take offense at anything he perceived as a slight. 

Ghiberti’s gilded bronze doors — Michelangelo named them the “Gates of Paradise”

Typically, Brunelleschi's response to frustration was to compose insulting poems and anonymously send them to whoever had frustrated him. When it came to his ability to compose Renaissance-era diss track poetry, the man has few rivals. This time, however, he took things a step further — feeling so humiliated at his loss to Ghiberti, Brunelleschi decided to give up on art altogether. Determined to become an architect, he left for Rome in the company of another younger, up-and-coming artist: Donatello. 

Also known for his irascible temperament, Donatello was a perfect companion for Brunelleschi. The two artists cursed, bickered, and argued their way through the ruins of Rome together, studying the ancient architecture and attempting to decipher the secrets of Roman building techniques. Miraculously, the two hot-headed Florentines developed something of a friendship along the way. While Donatello would still receive his fair share of insulting verses throughout his career, he and Brunelleschi for the most part remained close friends.

It was during this trip to Rome that Brunelleschi intensely studied the secrets of the dome of the Roman Pantheon. After his return to Florence, he felt he had the knowledge necessary to fix the problem of Santa Maria del Fiore: namely, that the city’s cathedral was without a dome, because nobody knew how to construct it.

Brunelleschi submitted his proposal, and it was accepted — not necessarily as a plan that was destined to work, but as the one that was least likely to fail. Before awarding him the project, however, the judges demanded that he reveal his architectural secret. Brunelleschi refused.

Brunelleschi’s wondrous dome…

The committee was wary, but they eventually awarded Brunelleschi the project. The only condition is that they would assign a partner to work with him on realizing the dome. After Brunelleschi agreed, the committee made their decision on who his partner would be — and the man they finally picked was none other than Lorenzo Ghiberti. Beside himself with rage, Brunelleschi flew into a fit so terrible that the committee had to call the palace guard and forcibly remove the artist, quite literally tossing him out the door and into the piazza. 

15 years later, Brunelleschi would achieve everlasting fame as the final bricks of Santa Maria del Fiore’s dome were laid into place. While today his name is associated with architectural genius, it was once associated with temper and ego. Temper, ego, and — of course — his infamous, “anonymous” poetry.

Da Vinci & Botticelli

Leonardo da Vinci (left) and Sandro Botticelli (right)

As in the case of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, several Renaissance “rivalries” were in fact rather one-sided. That of Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli was no different…

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